About 100 apartment buildings are packed into less than 7 square miles in the city of Anoka — and that’s not counting the suburb’s dozens of duplexes and the more than 200 single-family homes licensed as rentals.
With renters making up 48 percent of Anoka households, the city of 17,000 has one of the highest ratios of rentals in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area, census data show. Its rate rivals even Minneapolis and St. Paul and has spurred city leaders in the historic river town to take action.
While some of the suburb’s neighbors are throwing the doors open to apartment developments, Anoka is bucking the trend and halting new construction or expansion of rental dwellings for up to a year.
“We’ve always had the understanding that we have more rental housing in Anoka than we would like to have,” said City Council Member Carl Anderson. “Part of the reason is that we’re an older community and have an older housing stock.”
The Anoka City Council this week passed a moratorium on building or expanding rental housing. The move coincides with the city’s efforts to update its comprehensive plan and reflect on its future housing makeup. The temporary ban also comes at a time when the apartment vacancy rate across the metro remains tight, hovering under 3 percent.
Anoka’s decision has so far been met with little pushback, with many residents having long fretted about the suburb’s housing mix, city officials say.
“It’s clear that people are very concerned about it,” said Carolyn Braun, Anoka’s special projects manager. “We have to see if there’s anything we can do.”
As Anoka takes a closer look at its rentals, the city sits surrounded by suburbs welcoming a boom in apartment developments. From Blaine to Brooklyn Park to Shoreview, market-rate apartments are taking root, often driven by a growing cohort of young professionals and retiring baby boomers looking to rent.
In Columbia Heights, an affordable housing development narrowly approved this month marks the first project of its kind in that city in more than 30 years.
New multifamily housing projects can sometimes stir raucous disputes about density, parking and disruptions to established neighborhoods, especially in communities that are largely built out.
Anoka, though left with little open land, has also been approached recently by developers about building new apartments, said City Council Member Brian Wesp.
“We don’t want to restrict people from building apartment complexes in Anoka,” Wesp said. “But we decided to put the brakes on, step back and assess what we already have.”
Anoka’s moratorium brings to the foreground the city’s dipping homeownership rate, which has slipped about 4 percent since 1990.
What’s the right balance?
At a September work session, Anoka city leaders raised questions about what a community’s balance of homeowners and renters should be. A traditional standard, Braun said, has been to aim for 70 percent owner-occupied and 30 percent rental.
That rule of thumb doesn’t come from the Metropolitan Council or its housing policy plan, according to Beth Reetz, the Met Council’s community development director.
“We focus specifically on a range of affordability, not on the housing tenure of either ownership or rental,” Reetz said.
In the coming months, Anoka city officials plan to research the suburb’s housing stock and housing market, with the goal of determining whether the city is unique among its peers when it comes to rentals and its mix of market-rate and affordable units.
The city will also weigh whether to enact more rental restrictions or programs to support converting rented single-family homes to owner-occupied, Braun said.
Braun took a look at other communities that have invoked or considered ordinances limiting rental properties, including West St. Paul, Winona and Brooklyn Center. A few pushed for further restrictions, while others bolstered their standards for property maintenance.
“We need to understand if the older cities are similar to us or not,” Braun said. “It may be a problem that isn’t a problem. We just don’t know.”